Summer 2001, Vol. 4, No. 2

Summer 2001

Quick Links:
Related Articles
Superceding the Jews, Religion in the News, Summer 2001

Jamming the Jews, Religion in the News, Summer 2001

Spiritual Victimology, Religion in the News, Fall 1999

Quick Links:
Other articles
in this issue

Idol Threats

Purging Ourselves of Timothy McVeigh

The Pope Among the Orthodox

Faith-Based Update: Bipartisan Breakdown

The Perils of Polling

The Rael Deal.

Superceding the Jews

Jamming the Jews

Evangelism in a Chilly Climate

Correspondence: Palestinians and Israelis


"Sorry, Jews Can't speak from my pulpit..."

From the Editor: The Minister, the Rabbi, and the Baccalaureate
by Mark Silk

It starts innocently enough. On April 11, a committee of 30 seniors at Walton High School in east Cobb County, Georgia, chooses Rabbi Steven Lebow to speak at the school’s annual baccalaureate service. Parent adviser Claire Stanfill informs them that the decision is subject to the approval of the Rev. Randy Mickler, pastor of Mount Bethel United Methodist Church, where the baccalaureate event has taken place for the past seven years.

The following day, committee member Julia Levy calls Lebow, her rabbi, to tell him that he’s been selected. By e-mail he responds, "It would be an honor."

Meanwhile, another student lets Mickler know of the decision. Stanfill learns from the student that Mickler may have a problem, and invites him to attend the committee’s next meeting.

Mickler meets with the committee April 18 and says that while Lebow could be included in the ceremony in some way, he cannot speak because anyone standing behind the church’s pulpit must preach the way of Jesus Christ. Several committee members break into tears and ask why the service can’t be nonsectarian. Then, with Levy as the sole dissenter, the committee votes to stay at Mount Bethel and pick another speaker.

Levy calls Lebow and tells him he’s been disinvited. Student adviser Stanfill is inundated with calls at home, mostly from Jewish parents outraged at the decision.

On April 19, the Atlanta media get hold of the story.

East Cobb is suburban Atlanta at its malled and mini-mansioned finest, a slab of north Georgia real estate separated from the city proper by the moat of the Chattahoochee River and the refusal of Cobb citizens to allow the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority to run its trains and buses across the county line. It’s also a place of growing ethnic and religious diversity.

Mickler, a Florida native, arrived in this land of opportunity 13 years ago and transformed the 1,200-member Mount Bethel into a megachurch of 6,300 souls. Its 29-acre campus now includes a "Field of Dreams" for soccer, baseball, and softball; a mediation trail through the woods; and a stocked pond for fishing. Its latest sanctuary, completed in 1998, seats 2,200 and fills up twice each Sunday. It can accommodate a high school baccalaureate service and then some.

Mickler himself is a social conservative. He was an outspoken supporter of a Cobb County resolution condemning "the gay lifestyle." When the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church seemed too tolerant of same-sex commitment ceremonies, Mount Bethel for a time withheld nearly $224,000 in contributions.

As for Lebow, he’s done well in east Cobb too. Since becoming rabbi of a small Reform synagogue in Marietta in 1986, he has built Temple Kol Emeth ("The Whole Truth") into something like a mega-shul of 750 families. Its religious school has 650 students, making it the largest operation of its kind in the Southeast.

Lebow, true to form, is a social liberal who actively opposed the county resolution condemning "the gay lifestyle." During the ensuing public controversy, there was speculation that this might have had something to do with Mickler’s refusal to let him mount the Mount Bethel pulpit.

On April 20, in its first-day story on the baccalaureate affair, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution quoted Lebow as saying, "I’m flabbergasted….My experience here has been exactly the opposite. People have always been open and loving." For his part, Mickler defended his decision as one of principle: "To have a person who is a nonbeliever of Christ is, in a sense, dishonoring Christ."

That day, with local TV news trucks buzzing around Walton High and Mount Bethel like angry bees, the Walton Parent-Teacher-Student Association went out and hired the Cobb Civic Center for the baccalaureate service, and announced that Rabbi Lebow would be the speaker.

But the opportunity to massacre Cobb County for bigotry was too tempting for the Atlanta media to resist. Atlanta is the city too busy to hate. Cobb County is the place where, in the most notorious anti-Semitic act in American history, they lynched Leo Frank.

Talk radio hosts, conservative as well as liberal, ripped into Mickler. The Journal and Constitution (now known universally in metro Atlanta as "the AJC"), went into a full court press, with dozens of articles, columns, editorials, letters to the editor, and the complete texts of various relevant documents. The thoughts and feelings of Walton students were solicited. Withdrawals of Jewish coaches and players in Mount Bethel’s popular youth baseball program were recorded. The defense of their pastor by Mount Bethel congregants was noted.

The AJC sports two editorial pages, one liberal (the morning Constitution’s) and one conservative (the afternoon Journal’s). The Constitution (with the aid of the Mike Luckovich cartoon reprinted above) slammed Mickler for giving offense. The Journal, while defending the minister’s right to set the rules of his church, applauded the Walton PTSA for moving the baccalaureate service to the civic center.

Even the Marietta Daily Journal, the bastion of pious Cobb-centrism, took the bull by the horns: "A church obviously has the right to control the content of its religious services. But if that church hosts a baccalaureate service, which by nature is open to the public and to students and parents subscribing to a rainbow of faiths, that church must relinquish its control of that particular service."

Mickler hung tough on his principle, "Political correctness is not a deity here," he told his parishioners in his Sunday sermon April 23. "I am not obliged nor are you to sacrifice our faith in order to accommodate the faith of non-Christians."

It was, clearly, an embarrassment to the local Methodist hierarchy—and to a lot of local Methodists layfolk too. The marquee in front of Mount Zion United Methodist—which had hosted Temple Kol Emeth in its infancy—read "Shalom to All Our Jewish Friends." Bishop Lindsey Davis of the North Georgia Conference asked Mickler to meet with Lebow, and issued a statement that stressed the "long history…of ecumenical community service and cooperation" between Jews and Methodists in Georgia. "We see the need for a self-critical view of our own tradition and accurate appreciation of other traditions," the statement declared.

On April 24, Mickler and Lebow met and, while no apologies were tendered, the two agreed to take steps to achieve reconciliation, such as by having their congregations build a Habitat for Humanity House together. Meanwhile, another east Cobb high school canceled its own baccalaureate service at Mount Bethel.

In an April 26 AJC op-ed, Lebow said it was time, "in the words of that old Gospel hymn, to ‘go down to the river’ and to ‘lay down our swords and shield.’" Gradually, the Atlanta media turned to other stories.

So what was this all about?

Between the private territory of homes and the public territory of schools and courthouses and post offices lies the large and amorphous zone of civil society. It has its own rules of discourse, its own norms of behavior. And they change over time.

Baccalaureate ceremonies are exercises in spiritual uplift that now inhabit this civil society zone. They partake of formal religion, and so can no longer be undertaken by public schools like Walton High. But they are by definition community-wide, and must eventually find their way into institutions that can accommodate the community in all its diversity.

It is not enough, however, merely to redefine what is an acceptable place to indulge in a collective spiritual exercise.

In the end, Mickler and Lebow partook of that special Southern sacrament, a round of golf together. And Mickler pledged to attend Lebow’s baccalaureate service. At the service, Lebow named Mickler as one of his "heroes of democracy." When it was over, Mickler came up and planted a kiss of the rabbi’s bald pate.

Healing is not always a pretty thing.

Related Articles:

Superceding the Jews, Religion in the News, Summer 2001

Jamming the Jews, Religion in the News, Summer 2001

Spiritual Victimology, Religion in the News, Fall 1999


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